Meshesha Shewarega

Meshesha Shewarega Executive Director of CCRDA

A Man – and a Sector – at a Critical Juncture

EBR’s Fasika Tadesse spoke with Meshesha about this critical juncture, where NGOs, once seen as critical to Ethiopia’s development goals, hold a tenuous relationship with the government. Meshesha says there is a grave misperception about NGOs and the work they do in the country. The following is an excerpt:

Like in any other developing nation, the role of civil society organisations (CSOs) is visible in Ethiopia. Among these CSOs, the Consortium of Christian Relief and Development Association (CCRDA), which is an indigenous umbrella organization, is a major one.
Established in 1973, the CCRDA is engaged in relief, rehabilitation, and diverse developmental activities focusing on poverty alleviation. It is the first legally registered association of NGOs in the country. Meshesha Shewarega (PhD), who assumed his current position as Executive Director in 2008, leads the Consortium. He took the helm of the organisation while the group was at a crossroads, shifting its focus to development agendas.
Certainly, its name and its logo, which displays a traditional Ethiopian cross, is a reminder of the Consortium’s early roots as an organisation that mobilised various churches in Ethiopia to respond to the grave humanitarian crises facing the country. CCRDA’s presence in Ethiopia started when rains halted, meaning famine set in and reached a critical stage in most parts of the former Wollo and Tigray provinces.
More than four decades later, CCRDA’s membership has broadened significantly and many secular and non-Christian religious organisations have joined the Consortium.
Meshesha, a 49 year-old economist, was an unknown individual in the sector at the time of his appointment. However, he was entrusted by the board to restructure and lead the Consortium.
Meshesha was born in the Arsi zone of the Oromia Regional State, in a place called Yago, 70km away from the zonal capital Assella. He attended elementary education in his birthplace. He continued his education at Asella Comprehensive High School. Then he joined Addis Ababa University and graduated in 1984 with a BA degree in Political Science and International Relations.
A year later, he joined the Water Works Enterprise where he worked in human resource management and later as administration head of Gilgel Gibe I Dam construction.
He won a scholarship in 1988 to study for a master’s degree at the Johannes Kepler University in Linz, Austria, where he studied in the Social and Economic Science Department, specialising in public sector economics with a minor in development management.
Upon returning to Ethiopia in 1991, he joined Batu Construction Enterprise, where he met Zuriyashework Fikre, the woman he would eventually marry and with whom he would raise three daughters. Meshesha served the Enterprise in several positions, rising from project head for the construction of Dilla University to the head of the human resource division.
Following the promulgation of a new constitution and the subsequent approval of a new federal structure, Meshesha participated in organising regional states. He was also one of the experts who worked on the structure of the new regional states under the Office of the Prime Minster. He was responsible for organising and structuring different bureaus in the Oromia Regional State too.
In 1994, he travelled back to Austria to work towards a doctorate in economics at the same university from which he earned his master’s degree. He completed his studies in three years. The management of the university offered him to serve the university. However, he preferred to return to Ethiopia in 1997 and joined the Ethiopian Civil Service University, teaching business courses. He worked at the University for five years. Eventually, he left the University because he was invited by the Oromia regional government to lead the region’s Capacity Building Office. He also worked as head of the Office of the President and special advisor to the President, which was the end of his career within government offices.
Upon leaving government service, he joined the Organisation for Social Science Research in Eastern and Southern Africa, an international organisation that focuses on research and policy advocacy. After serving for three years as senior programme officer, he received an invitation from the board of the then CRDA to compete for the post of Executive Director.
“Although I love to serve Africa in general, I accepted the offer because I am aware of the legendary contribution of the Association during the great famine of the 1973 and 1984, which killed many,” recalls Meshesha.
Meshesha was given the position after competing with 27 nominees. During Meshesha’s tenure, the budget allocations of the Consortium reached ETB10 billion.
Through remittances, the Consortium is currently contributing a large amount of foreign currency to local projects, amounting to more than half a billion dollars per year and serving more than 16 million people in six regions.
When he joined the Consortium, Meshesha’s first task was saving the organisation from bankruptcy. At the time, the CCRDA had in its coffer only three months of salaries. That was a difficult circumstance to encounter. His next task was even harder than the first.
Three years before Meshesha took the post, the CCRDA was not on good terms with the government. The Association was accused of engaging in activities classified by the government as ‘political’, contrary to its mission.
“The perception of the government was [that] the Consortium is not politically independent. So there was a fear by the government that the boundary between the civil society and the political society was transgressed,” Meshesha explains.
The situation was difficult for him, as he also had multiple responsibilities to renew relationships with donors. The Consortium’s relations with donors was in peril due to a leadership vacuum for some time on the side of the CCRDA. Since the intention of the donors was to have a Consortium that works on creating a vibrant and critically questioning social society in Ethiopia, which is not compatible with the current civil society law, made the restoration of the relations challenging.
The fact that he was new to the sector made the hurdle even more cumbersome. The time he took leadership was the time when a new amended civil society proclamation was approved. This means he has to make sure that there is a financial resilience and sustainability by working with donors.
Meshesha recalls the moment “as one of the difficult moments in the [Consortium’s] entire history and also my professional evolution.”
Meshesha says it is very difficult to conclude whether the Consortium has been successful during his tenure, but states that the journey has been a learning process. “The Consortium is greatly contributing towards the national development. But as the operating environment is changing unprecedentedly, the CCRDA should continue adapting itself to this variable surroundings,” Meshesha concludes.
EBR: What are the challenges faced by NGOs in Ethiopia?
Meshesha: We have many challenges. The first and most [difficult] is finance. We are heavily dependent on externally generated funds, and that makes us vulnerable and highly susceptible to any shocks and changes happening elsewhere. Generating these resources has been worsening [over time]. The other problem is the public image and the government’s perception towards NGOs. The sector is considered to be a bunch of thieves, informally structured, [full of] crony[ism] and self-serving ventures.
Another problem is our relations with the government, [which] is still [marred by] suspicion. The other [challenge] is the legal and institutional framework. We are welcomed because there are laws governing and regulating the sector. Nevertheless, some of the provisions and legal framework needs retouching and reconfiguration by looking into some of the guidelines that are not promoting engagement and functioning in this sector.

Studies suggest that there is still a need for NGOs in Ethiopia to go beyond their traditional responsibilities and acquire a long-term strategy to make a meaningful contribution to the country’s development. This is because NGOs operating in Ethiopia usually have short-term programmes. What limits NGOs from having long-term projects?
Actually that is contingent on the support that we get. Sometimes donors may come up with a programme that lasts only for a year or two. However, this approach is changing [as we are shifting] from the project-based approach to the programme-based approach. Currently NGOs are starting to run a three-year project.

Can we say three-year projects are long-term projects?
Of course. Time is not really a critical factor; it is what you do in that time spans what matters. Ensuring sustainability of the programme and creating community and government ownership are the major issues. NGOs cannot stay in a given area indefinitely because it will create dependency syndrome.

After 1991, an increasing number of NGOs started to operate in Ethiopia. Despite this, the NGOs’ approach towards development and their effectiveness in food security has been a point of debate. What is your take on that?
Honestly speaking, 20 years for a highly populous country like Ethiopia is not a fair and optimum period to say NGOs have not been effective. There was no legal instrument governing the sector up to 2009. Even the focal institutions [that supervise NGOs] changed over time. First, it was the Ministry of Justice; then it was the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development. Now it is an independent agency. As you go to the regions, focal institutions change more frequently.
Besides, we did not have a legal instrument that regulates the NGO sector [for several years]. [This is on top of the fact that] the technical and human capacity of several NGOs has been poor. So considering all these [challenges], it will be unfair to judge.

Many scholars stress that the political climate in the country plays a role in the poor contribution of NGOs to the country’s development. Do you agree with them?
The Constitution affirms the right of citizens to organise themselves. Civil societies and NGOs are one of the modalities for organising citizens. There is also a legal bill, so in terms of political will, I do not see any problem.
Nevertheless, there are some concerns. For instance, there is still restriction on NGOs that receive more than 10Pct of their budget from outside sources not to be engaged in areas like good governance and justice-related issues.

It is believed that an active, vibrant civil society is both a force that can hold governments accountable and the base upon which a truly democratic culture and development can be established. Nevertheless, we are not observing that in Ethiopia. Why?
We have the Ethiopian Social Accountability Programme headed by the World Bank and supported by UK Aid, Irish Aid, the European Union and other development partners. Several NGOs implement the programme across 100 Woredas. This [helps] hold the government accountable for the quality, and responsiveness of its service delivery to citizens. [There are] also women and professional associations working on various issues for which the government is being held accountable to its citizens.

Due to a growing tendency of multilateral and bilateral institutions collaborating with NGOs, a large amount of aid goes through NGOs. However, insiders insist that only a small portion of this money goes to the beneficiaries in whose names the funds are mobilised. What is your take on this?
We have a legal instrument that ensures this does not happen. A minimum of 70Pct of the total funding that NGOs receive from the donors should go to the citizens directly. In our case, 80Pct of our total budget directly goes to the beneficiaries through member organisations, while the balance goes to cover [overhead costs].

Can you confidently say the existing originations are living up to this 70/30 principle for resource allocations?
Definitely – and it is mandatory; if the NGOs are not really up to the law and if organisations are not adhering to those principles, there will be legal action, even to the extent of revoking their licenses. To the best of my knowledge – and I am chairperson of the board that governs the NGO sector – the majority of them are abiding by the principle.

It seems there is a concentration of NGOs on women, children and reproductive health issues in Ethiopia.
Government has identified more than 20 areas of intervention for NGOs and civil society organisations. However, the most prominent areas are food security, children welfare, health, water and sanitation, HIV/AIDS and education. These areas are national priorities set by the government. They are also the priority of donor organisations and NGOs.
Let us talk about NGOs that abandoned their goal of establishment not to lose funding from foreign sources. You know only a handful of NGOs re-registered with the mandate to work on issues of human rights and democracy; however, before the bill, there were several such organisations. This happened because these NGOs changed their identity to serve what the bill classifies as development intervention not to lose foreign funds. What is your intake on that?
Here one point needs rectification. As per the new law, any organisation that generates more than 10Pct of its funding from foreign sources cannot engage on right and good governance-related issues. It is those organisations that generate more than 90Pct of their funding from domestic sources, that are known as Ethiopian charities, who can do that. If we take the 2014 data, there were more than 116 Ethiopian Charities registered or re-registered by the Charities and Societies Agency. On top of this, we have around 496 Societies that are engaged in promoting the rights of their own constituencies and advocate for safeguarding the interests of their member organizations, albeit the fact that the societies are not allowed to promote the rights of third parties. There are still possibilities to engage on rights and democracy related activities. The main concern, however, is the relative smallness of the total number of the Ethiopian Charities and Societies in comparison to the total size of the NGO sector that is around 3,000.

NGOs usually have founding objectives to serve donors’ interests and government requirements to fulfil. Is maintaining this balance a manageable issue?
Maintaining this balance is the rule of the game. The donors set some conditions that have to be meet to obtain resources and maintain partnership, while adherence to the government regulatory body’s requirements is a condition for smooth functioning of any NGO. Equally, the institutional grand objectives of NGOs shall also align and adapt to institutional and legal frameworks, as failing to do so is tantamount to endangering the very existence of the organization. EBR

4th Year • October 16 – November 15 2015 • No. 32

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